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Thursday, August 30, 2012

PEGs: Performance Enhancing Gloves

Researchers at Stanford, led by two biologists, are close to having a commercially viable cooling glove, a device designed to cool core body temperature by cooling blood in particular veins in the palm that are devoted to temperature regulation. (H/T: My colleague Tracy Hresko Pearl).

The research team also discovered that the glove carries athletic benefits. Cooling the body also cools muscles. Muscle fatigue, it has been found, is a product of the temperature in the muscle getting too high (something to do with a chemical enzyme); by cooling the muscles, the glove essentially resets the state of muscle fatigue, allowing an athlete to start over. In a six-week period, one member of the team went from doing 180 pull-ups in a session to over 620; they found similar improvements in bench press, running, and cycling. And several teams--including the Raiders, Niners, Man United, and the Stanford football and track teams--have begun using it.

Given this level of improvement, one of the researchers said that the glove was "[e]qual to or substantially better than steroids … and it's not illegal." But should it be? And if not, returning to a question I asked when I first started blogging, why is the glove different from steroids or HGH or EPO or blood doping or other performance enhances that we have outlawed and decried? All use modern technology and modern scientific knowledge (the science behind cooling was not fully understood until 2009) to improve athletic performance. Athletes training with any of these have a technological advantage not available 10, 20, or 50 years ago.

The only apparent difference is the negative health consequences associated with steroids. But is that all there is? And in our new Libertarian Era, should that be enough?

Posted by Howard Wasserman on August 30, 2012 at 10:35 AM in Culture, Howard Wasserman, Sports | Permalink


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The negative health consequences associated with steroids and HGH (as well as the fact that they are illegal under US law without a prescription) is a pretty substantial difference. The better comparisons would seem to be body suits in swimming or golf carts in golf.

Posted by: AF | Aug 30, 2012 11:40:03 AM

As a semi-competitive runner, this is fascinating. In fact, you might forward this on to the guys at sportsscientists.com. One of them (Ross, I think) does a lot of work on the relationship between body temperature and mass and performance. If I recall correctly, he thinks that almost the entire advantage that East Africans have at longer distances can be attributed to their lower body masses. (Essentially, the lower the mass, the hotter you can go before your internal governor kicks in and forces you to slow down. Or something like that.)

A good analogy here is probably altitude training and altitude tents. As someone who recently moved from altitude to sea level, I can attest to the benefits.

Posted by: Josh | Aug 30, 2012 11:55:35 AM

AF: The second point can't do it alone because I'm asking the prior question--why are they illegal or why should they be illegal. The negative health consequences are all we have. But: 1) should it matter for a fully informed adult? 2) Aren't there negative health consequences associated with many sports themselves, so does one more matter? 3) Do we know anything about potential negative health consequences of the glove or other treatments? It may just be worth stepping away from the moral panic for a second.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Aug 30, 2012 3:41:18 PM

I'll also note that the negative health concerns about PEDs are largely overblown. That is, some stuff (like EPO) is relatively benign, and others (like traditional anabolic steroids) are dangerous mostly because users experiment with them without doctor supervision.

I think that the real reason that PEDs are banned (and by the way, they're not, at least not universally -- endurance athletes commonly take caffeine pills before a race, for example) is that we're concerned that the sports in question will devolve into a chemical arms race. The winners will be determined more by whomever can figure out the best drug cocktail and less by talent or hard work. (Which is a silly concern, by the way -- talent and work will always be 98% of the reason that the winner wins, with PEDs only affecting things at the margins.) And yes, stuff like the cold glove and altitude tents are hard to distinguish in that regard.

Posted by: Josh | Aug 30, 2012 4:02:34 PM

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